Separating Blame from Responsibility
Updated: Feb 27
Something that I’ve become aware of lately in the conversations of people around me is a common misconception about responsibility. It is the implication that taking responsibility for something is the same as being blamed for something.
Though blame can be placed upon a person who is expected to be responsible for a certain situation, taking responsibility is not the same as accepting blame. This is important to realize because responsibility is actually a form of power. It is the power that a person has over a given circumstance. More specifically, it is a person’s ability to make a choice in a circumstance which will influence an outcome. Blame on the other hand is the placing of guilt on a person for an unfavorable outcome.
It is easy to mix blame and responsibility up because they tend to run in the same streams. If someone is responsible for something and they make a choice that leads to an unfavorable outcome they are often blamed for that outcome. There is a clear association between the two words. However, thinking that blame and responsibility are the same is dangerous because we do not like to be blamed for things. Guilt is a painful emotional state to be in and many of us will do our best to avoid it—especially from ourselves and the people whose opinions we care most about. Since blame is something, we naturally tend to avoid associating it too closely with responsibility makes a person more likely to avoid responsibility. They feel that they can be blamed for a situation if they don’t take responsibility for it. Here is the problem if a person who fears being blamed avoids responsibility, they are also forfeiting their most reliable source of personal power. A person who does not take responsibility for things has no power over the outcome of those things. The less responsibility a person is willing to take the less power they have over the circumstances around them and the more vulnerable they are to falling victim to those circumstances.
I need to put a warning in at this point that taking hyper-responsibility can be equally damaging in its own way, so I would not recommend that people try to take responsibility for every circumstance they encounter. For the sake of this post, though, it’s important to understand that though responsibility and blame are often associated with each other they are not the same thing and it may be worth while to note that responsibility and success have an equal association.
So what exactly does it mean to take responsibility and how do you learn to separate it from blame and the guilt that blame brings?
Like I mentioned earlier, taking responsibility is one of the most reliable sources of power a person has. It is the power to choose a response to a certain circumstance and thus influence the outcome. Whenever anything presents itself to us in life we have the opportunity to take responsibility for that thing. This is especially true when there is a problem or crisis—but in a subtle way it is true all the time. Every moment it is our responsibility to choose how to act in that moment—doing this, choosing what thoughts, actions, and responses we have is how we take responsibility for our lives on the smallest scale.
Whether we consciously take responsibility for each of our choices or function on auto-pilot for most of the day, we don’t tend to have an issue with blame until we run into a problem or crisis point. Lets say that you are driving down the street and you hit another car. Suddenly you have a problem and are at one of those crisis points. When reviewing the actions leading up to the accident the immediate response of a person in that situation is often to blame. Either they blame themselves for hitting the other car, they blame the driver of the other car for braking too fast or cutting them off, they blame some external circumstance such as bad weather or road conditions or some combination.
While any and all of these factors may have contributed to the accident, responsibility has nothing to do with any of them. The distinction between blame and responsibility is at this point. Blame looks backwards and tries to assign guilt and punishment; responsibility looks at the situation and forward in order to come up with a solution. Whether it is your fault or not the fact is you are now in an accident means that you have choices to make about your response. The way to hold onto the most power in this situation is to own those choices and make them to the best of your ability, if you don’t you will fall victim to whatever actions the other driver takes.
Another example to show the difference between blame and responsibility is this: you are at work and there is problem with some of the data you are working with. More than one person worked on those data sets. Your manager notices the problem and brings it everyone’s attention. The people who are focused on blame and trying to avoid punishment will tend to respond by explaining why it isn’t their fault. They will say that they didn’t work on those numbers or they didn’t know that things were supposed to be a certain way or some other reason why they didn’t cause the problem. The people who are focused on taking responsibility will look at the problem and notice the reason that it occurred and start coming up with a plan to resolve it and/or prevent it in the future. From the responsibility perspective it doesn’t matter whose fault something is, what matters is the reason the error occurred and what can be done to resolve it. The people that are more likely to stand out and be moved to higher positions in the company are those who are focused on responsibility. The reason for this is because people who are focused on blame hide whenever something goes wrong—they do not want to be noticed because they do not want to be punished. People who focus on responsibility are not as concerned with hiding they are concerned with offering a solution. Solutions to problems are more valuable to companies than invisible employees, so people who are focused on responsibility are more likely to be noticed for their contribution to the resolution of a crisis and given more responsibility in the form of a promotion.
Here is one more example to make sure the distinction between blame and responsibility is very clear. Let’s say that you are walking down the street and you see a stray dog. You are not to blame for that dog being stray, but you can choose to take responsibility for helping the dog if you want to. Responsibility is a choice. Maybe you choose to take the dog to the local shelter, maybe you choose to adopt the dog or give it some food, or maybe you choose to do nothing. Whatever you choose you are not to blame for the dog’s initial state of being on the street, however at that moment you have the power to influence what that dog will experience next. You are not to blame for anything that happened prior but you can choose to change the course of that animal’s experience.
While there are many more things that can be said about taking responsibility, I want to leave you with this thought. You don’t have to take responsibility for anything if you don’t want to. If you choose not to take responsibility you are simply allowing other circumstances to have full influence over an outcome. You don’t have to choose to influence any kind of outcome or have power over any circumstance—but refusing to take any responsibility for your own life at all will leave you a victim in your own life. You might experience good outcomes, you might experience horrible outcomes, but if you take no responsibility you will have no say over those outcomes and that is often a terrifying place to be. If being empowered is something that is important to you then learning how to take responsibility for things in your life is an important part of reaching that goal.
Remember taking responsibility is not the same as taking blame—it doesn’t mean that you are saying that it’s your fault that things are how they are. It is simply having the ability to influence the outcome of the current circumstance by choosing which action to take. This is not something that you have to be afraid of, and often taking appropriate responsibility at the right time will lead to fewer crisis points and less need for blaming anyone.